Most Southerners know that some questions should never be answered with pure honesty. Take the question, “Does this dress look good on me?” If we know that our dear friend has simply inherited genes from their daddy’s side, then we know that there’s not much to be done about it (bless their hearts). A favorite color is a favorite color, no matter how awful it looks on cars, houses, and strapless bridesmaids’ dresses. Why not let our friend enjoy their dress, even if it might be confused with a windsock? It is just a color.
For Southerners, a “lie” implies malice. Dishonesty without malice, however, is merely polite storytelling. It’s gentle deflection when we know our opinion isn’t really wanted. It’s highlighting some details and omitting others, like not discussing why the alcoholic cousin is “out of town” until after dinner. Rehab is much more palatable over a warm, deep-fried peach pie.
My Arkansas summers were full of polite stories.
The propensity for exaggeration might be genetic. My great uncle once told us about a scuba diver who’d been contracted to work on the local hydroelectric dam. While inspecting the intake tunnel at the bottom of the lake, the diver claimed (according to my uncle) to step on the trunk of a giant sunken tree … which then swam away. Moby Dick has nothing on a monster catfish the size of a station wagon. Even if both are fiction.
Yet, we share and revel in polite storytelling beyond big fish and bad dresses. Many of these tales have a blustering flourish.
Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles in the summer of 1981 when I was 8 years old. I sat on the floor with my grandmother, her eldest sister Fred-Irene, and my first cousin to watch the replay of a fairytale that catapulted future American weddings into grotesque mimicry. We had stopped playing pinochle to rotate the towering television antennae to pick up the only other station that broadcast that deep into southwest Arkansas.
I don’t know whether I paid more attention to Lady Spencer, her dress, or the trumpets, but, something sparked my great-aunt into an outburst.
“You have as much right to be at that wedding as she does!” Aunt Fred-Irene exclaimed.
“What? Who?” I thought, before realizing she had wheezed at the top of her lungs.
“You have as much royal blood as she does!”
Now, let’s interrupt Aunt Fredder’s polite story for a brief history lesson. The House of Windsor has German ancestry: every Brit and most Anglophiles know this. The current royal lineage was established in 1701 by Parliament’s Act of Settlement, which picked Electress Sophia of Hanover, the youngest Protestant descendant of King James VI of Scotland for the British throne. Certainly, there were, at that time, alternative lines of ascension, perhaps more British or Scottish or Celtic or, simply, less German. Instead, for reasons left to Ph.D. dissertations, Parliament selected, effectively, a German princess.
But Great Aunt Fredder was not making dry, savvy political commentary on whether Prince Charles was an ironic heir or “British enough.” No, indeed.
With all three of our heads turned away from Lady Diana, my great aunt boomed her own very polite story: “WE ARE STEWARTS! The STEWARTS are the royal house of Scotland!”
Leaving no room for debate or questions, Aunt Fredder shuffled into her house slippers, boomed out of that dark house with emphatic promptness, and marched across a dusty gravel road. To her mobile home. On the edge of a pine thicket. In Arkansas. That’s right. She had announced, unequivocally, that we were that kind of royal before stomping out of a 1970s ranch house for her trailer in the woods. My grandmother said nothing, although in hindsight, I suspect her eyes rolled with every step her sister made.
Meanwhile, the wedding parade continued, and I had questions.
Was I going to inherit a castle? What in the hell was I doing in Arkansas? On a dirt road? Were my ancestors ex-patriots? Disenfranchised? Did anyone know? Or care?
Let me end one thread right now. I don’t have cousins in Windsor Castle. Yes, Stewart is a family name. That part is true (assuming none of my ancestors ever told a polite story about who the daddy was). It is also true that the Scottish (and eventually English) Throne was held by the House of Stewart until 1714. But we have no confirmation where or if our Stewart name intersects with any titled Stewart.
Aunt Fredder never repeated nor discussed our royalty again.
It likely inspired a polite story that I told myself as a kid. I firmly believed that when I turned twelve (long before an invitation to Hogwarts was even an idea on a page), my real parents would appear. My current parents were simply custodians (or, perhaps, stewards) for my real parents. My grandparents were also in on the secret. My real parents were scheduled to appear at that magical age, arriving in a long black car with foreign decals, small flags on the corners, and bodyguards.
Clearly, Aunt Fredder taught me well: if I’m going to tell a polite story, I should make it really super extra polite.
An exciting part for Southerners is when one family member’s polite story steamrolls right over another’s. Years later, long after I’d turned twelve and no black car had whisked me away, I visited the widow of a Stewart cousin. She revealed, with great joy, some research into our Scottish ancestry that her husband had found. Perhaps a small part of me wondered if we really had a family secret.
“My husband told his aunts and cousins that Stewarts were the royal clan of Scotland, and oh, they ate that up. I don’t think they listened when he told them that, if there was any connection to the royal family, it was probably through an illegitimate kid.”
Apparently, some of my family focused on being Stewarts instead of bastards.
This confirmed what I learned when my family celebrated my twelfth birthday with a store-bought cake (German chocolate, no less). I’d already been where I belonged, spending summers in Arkansas on a gravel road, listening to my family tell each other very polite stories.
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